It is hard to say whether the goings-on at the Tung Chung river are comic, or tragic. Some 400 tonnes of boulders have been removed from the riverbed and sold for use in an artificial lake near the Disney theme park being built at Penny's Bay. As a result, the river, already placid to begin with, is now a stagnant puddle. More than a dozen species of fish that lived there have disappeared, possibly in search of more hospitable climes, while one group is calling the incident the city's biggest ecological disaster to date. Authorities, who did not seem to notice until the damage was already done, are now asking those responsible to restore the river to its previous condition. One question on most people's minds has to be: how could this happen? The river sits on unleased, government-owned land. It does not enjoy any special ecological protection, which in Hong Kong is reserved for the country parks and a small number of other areas, usually habitats supporting endangered species. The river therefore falls under Lands Department supervision and removal of materials such as boulders would be prohibited under several provisions of the Land Ordinance. Environmentalists and citizens alike will want to know how the wholesale excavation and draining of a riverbed could have gone unnoticed. What role do the police have to play in enforcing these laws and is the job being done properly? The boulder plot is not the first variation of natural-resource poaching we have seen in Hong Kong this year. It follows widely publicised sand- and tree-smuggling operations launched by bandits who harvest the materials for sale on the mainland. In areas under no special ecological protection, the punishment for the offences of illegal excavation and removal is a $5,000 fine and six months in jail. In the case of excavation, the cost of rehabilitating the land can be recouped by the government. Those who organise the poaching profit handsomely, and the recent examples point to a possibility that such penalties may not be a sufficient deterrent. Beyond that, they show that there are loopholes in our ecological protection schemes. Only two streams appear on the list of scientifically important sites which need protection. Considering the crucial role that water plays in the ecosystem, should not more rivers and streams enjoy similar status? Similarly, is public education about the environment sufficient and do the laws need to be revised to prevent new types of abuses? At Tung Chung, the government is sticking to its demand for those who removed the boulders to put them back - and may yet prosecute. If Hong Kong cannot curb such flagrant abuse of natural resources, there will be little hope of preserving them, and much less of promoting our countryside as an interesting destination for eco-tourism.